Product owners have unique and demanding responsibilities. Unlike a product manager, taking on product owner responsibilities can be challenging, but the role is fundamental to the success of an agile team.
In simple terms, the product owner is responsible for understanding the big picture. They need to focus on the “why” when considering the development of a product. Who’s it for? What’s the value? In the end, product owners have the final word on strategic and tactical product decisions, so their roles and responsibilities are important.
In scrum, product owners are the connector between strategy and implementation/development. This requires a focused mindset and distinct business tools. Since the product owner is typically close to the business side of the organization, they must strive to understand the needs of the stakeholders and the vision for the finished product.
According to Roman Pichler, a leading agile expert and the author of How to Lead in Product Management, ”The ultimate responsibility of a product owner is to ensure that the product creates value for its customers and users, as well as for the company. Think of the product owner as the person who champions the product, who facilitates the product decisions, and who has the final say about the product.” Pichler also says, “This includes if and how feedback is actioned, and which features are released.”
The true measure of a great product owner is to be empowered, knowledgeable, empathetic, available, and decisive. We’ve established a high level overview of the product owner role. Now, let’s break down important product owner responsibilities, authority, and accountabilities.
Of the many product owner responsibilities, the main ones to consider are:
Defining the Vision
No matter where a product vision comes from, be it a product manager, interactions with customers, or market research, the product owner is the point person who connects that vision to the development process. A high-level perspective is key to ensure good communication of the vision. Keeping the channels of communication flowing is imperative to aligning that vision with goals.
Of course, in this analogy, there are often speed bumps and weather issues. But if everyone has the same roadmap to reference, adjusting in a fast-paced environment will keep everything on course.
But what’s the best way to keep things transparent and work flowing? You guessed it; it’s that all-important product backlog.
Managing the Product Backlog
Agile product owners live in their product backlog. The backlog is a document or environment that POs use to bridge the gap between strategy and development. It’s the conduit for prioritizing products to be developed, keeping clearly expressed items to help reach the product goal, and refining based on feedback from users, customers, and stakeholders.Think of a product backlog as an organized way of taking the vision and putting it into motion.
The Scrum Guide 2020 views the product backlog as the “single source of work undertaken by the Scrum Team.” The product backlog demonstrates the commitment of the team to achieve the product goal, i.e. the target for development. It’s the go-to place where the team finds visibility, transparency, and clarity on the work.
To plan the work to be done each sprint, teams need an idea of their product's overall objective. The product owner’s responsibility therefore is to make that objective clear. Here’s where tasks such as product roadmapping and user stories become important.
Of course, once the product goal is established through user stories and roadmapping, the big question is where to proceed? Welcome, priorities…
Product owners spend much of their time and focus reviewing the backlog and prioritizing the next steps. By taking this responsibility, the product owner enables the development team to focus on how to implement their tasks at hand.
Priorities can be based on the operation of a product and the complexity of the increments. The goal is to work in short cycles to allow for inspection and adapting. And throughout the process, the product owner is there to keep an eye on the progress.
As a product owner, you will need to be present and engaged. Along with the scrum master, who helps the scrum team members enhance the usage of the scrum framework to streamline processes, you will help your team thrive by participating in daily scrums, sprint planning, sprint reviews, and retrospectives.
Tip: Agile Leader Melissa Pickering recommends hosting a monthly stakeholder meeting that brings together all the people who may not be able to make it to the reviews every sprint (or for teams that have external customers, have a monthly internal meeting separate from regular reviews.
Of course, be prepared for people coming to you with ideas. This is where the key product owner responsibility of saying “no” comes into play.
Okay, this isn’t a documented product owner responsibility, but it is imperative. Successful product owners, as mentioned, have the ability to see the big picture. With that comes the great responsibility of protecting the team (and product). And frankly, sometimes that means saying no – or better yet, “not now.”
We’ve gone through many responsibilities that a product owner is faced with. The product owner role requires a strong understanding of these responsibilities, and, more importantly, these skills and personality traits.
Learn More About Product Owner Responsibilities
Scrum Alliance members can take the next step with the Learning Journey course: Deliver More Value as an Authoritative Product Owner. The learning material covers an array of subjects for you to grow your skills.
The Product Owner (PO) is a member of the Agile Team who is responsible for maximizing the value delivered by the team and ensuring that the Team Backlog is aligned with customer and stakeholder needs.
As a member of the extended Product Management function, the PO is the team’s primary customer advocate and primary link to business and technology strategy. This enables the team to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders while continuously evolving the Solution.
For most enterprises moving to Agile, the Product Owner role is a new—and typically full-time—role for each Agile Team. Each PO represents the needs of customers and the business within a particular Solution domain, which is typically co-represented by a Product Manager. Together, they ensure that product strategy and implementation remain connected throughout the value stream.
Serving as the ‘voice of the customer’ for the team entails a broad range of responsibilities. The PO must build and manage key relationships, synthesize information from multiple sources, maintain business alignment in the Team Backlog, and communicate effectively with a variety of audiences—all with a bias toward delivering, and learning, quickly.
The PO’s responsibilities can generally be categorized into five primary areas, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Product Owner areas of responsibility
Each of these areas of responsibility is described in the sections below.
Connecting with the Customer
Ensuring that ARTs are continually building the right things and building them right is a never-ending process. Product strategy, design, and implementation must evolve with ever-changing customer desires and business needs. The PO, in close partnership with Product Management, applies a customer-centric mindset along with design thinking tools to guide the ART toward delivering solutions that are desirable, viable, feasible, and sustainable. The PO applies Customer Centricity and Design Thinking in the following ways:
Contributing to the Vision and Roadmap
While product managers contemplate the solutions and experiences an ART should deliver, POs also understand what solutions and experiences the teams can deliver. This practical insight is a valuable contribution to the vision and roadmaps that guide solution implementation. The PO applies this pragmatic insight in the following ways:
Managing and Prioritizing the Team Backlog
With input from Product Management, System Architecture, and other stakeholders, the PO has the primary responsibility for maintaining the content and the conceptual and technical integrity of the Team Backlog. Consisting of user stories, enablers, and defects, the backlog must always contain work that is ready to be pulled for implementation by the team and be aligned with the most current needs of customers and stakeholders. The PO manages the ongoing integrity of the team backlog through the following activities:
Supporting the Team in Delivering Value
Value is created when Agile teams pull from the backlog, implement stories, integrate and test changes, and deliver a solution increment. These value-creation activities occur primarily during iteration execution. As an integral member of the team and their primary customer proxy, the PO provides daily insights that guide development toward the highest-value outputs and the team toward meeting iteration goals. This enables the team and, in turn, the ART, to deliver continuous value.
Getting and Applying Feedback
The PO has a primary responsibility for maximizing the value delivered by an Agile team. This, of course, implies that value is known. That knowledge comes from frequent feedback from customers and stakeholders—not just upon delivery but throughout the entire delivery life cycle. The PO is critical in enabling the continuous feedback loops that fuel the value stream. The PO seeks quantitative and qualitative feedback to develop a comprehensive understanding of where solutions are and are not providing real value. The following activities enable the PO to gather and apply feedback from several key sources:
The PO is ultimately responsible for maximizing the value delivered by the Agile team, which requires the PO to ensure that the right solutions are built and that they are built the right way. However, the PO cannot accomplish this alone.
Building the right solutions requires deep knowledge of business strategy, customer segments, market dynamics, and value stream economics. The PO establishes a close relationship with Product Management to derive these macro-level insights and apply them to specific product domains. Building solutions the right way requires Team and Technical Agility, DevOps practices, and a Continuous Delivery Pipeline. These technical capabilities determine the speed and quality with which value can be delivered, and the PO relies on the Agile team to provide them.
The PO provides a crucial link in the bi-directional information flow between Product Management and the Agile team. As shown in Figure 2, the PO keeps the Agile team informed of the strategy that drives product design and keeps Product Management informed of the innovations that influence the evolution of product strategy. Customer feedback aligns thinking from strategy through execution and is accessible to all roles.
Figure 2. Key PO relationships
Last update: 11 October 2022